Nonsmokers Are Inhaling, Too

Secondhand smoke exposure found to affect children, blacks and those below the poverty line more than other groups

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Smoking is a potential health issue for more than just those lighting up. Secondhand smoke can also cause health problems for nonsmokers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently found that children, blacks, people living below the poverty line and people who lived in rental housing were most likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is the smoke exhaled by a smoker or from burning tobacco products like cigarettes, pipes and cigars.

“That 40 percent of children — including seven in 10 black children — are still exposed shows how much more we have to do to protect everyone from this preventable health hazard,” said CDC Director Tom R. Frieden, MD, in a press release.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, according to the CDC. Hundreds of these chemicals are toxic. Seventy are known to cause cancer. The CDC notes that secondhand smoke always has risks, no matter how small the amount.

David M. Homa, PhD, of the Office on Smoking and Health at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, led a team of researchers who studied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Although the total number of people exposed to secondhand smoke dropped 52.5 percent from 1999 to 2012, Dr. Homa and team found that certain groups were still often exposed.

Secondhand smoke exposure was highest in children ages 3 to 11, at 40.6 percent — although down from 64.9 percent in 1999.

Almost 47 percent of blacks who were nonsmokers were exposed to secondhand smoke. In comparison, only 29.9 percent of Mexican-American nonsmokers were exposed to secondhand smoke.

High exposure rates were also found in people who lived below the poverty level and in rental housing, at 43.2 percent and 36.8 percent, respectively. Dr. Homa and colleagues said that many people who are poor live in multi-unit housing, so they can sometimes be exposed if their neighbors smoke.

Altogether, Dr. Homa and colleagues estimated that 58 million Americans were exposed to secondhand smoke in 2011. Using air filters, opening windows, or separating smokers and nonsmokers in the same room or building does not significantly reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.

Secondhand smoke exposure in children is a particular area of concern, with 15 million children still exposed to secondhand smoke in 2011, according to the CDC report. In children, secondhand smoke exposure can cause ear infections, more frequent or severe asthma attacks, and infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.

In adults, nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke may be at risk of heart disease, lung cancer and stroke.

Dr. Homa and colleagues note that secondhand smoke exposure is a preventable health hazard. Key activities for communities and public health departments include education for parents, landlords, and employers and the implementation of statewide laws that prohibit smoking in all public buildings and workplaces.

Patients who want to quit smoking can often find help in community smoking cessation classes. Also, doctors can offer medications that help patients quit.

This report was published Feb. 3 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC funded this research. Dr. Homa and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
February 3, 2015
Last Updated:
February 5, 2015